Former US diplomat Daniel Fried, who coordinated sanctions in the Obama administration, talked to DW about the US Congress' decision to impose tougher sanctions on Russia and Europe's undue concerns.
DW: In the past the US and the EU have closely coordinated their sanction policies on Russia. Now there's growing criticism in Europe and especially in Germany of the bill passed by the US Congress and the Senate, imposing tougher sanctions on Moscow. Why didn't Congress consult its European allies?
Daniel Fried: The United States worked with Europe and jointly designed the sanctions against Russia. We'd never done this before, we did it and frankly we liked the process and the outcome. The origins of this bill have nothing to do with the criticism of Europe. Congress was not going after Europe and this bill was not based on an assumption that Europe was not doing its part. This was first of all an expression of Congress' ire at the Russians for its cyber hacking and a kind of frustration with the Russian aggression generally.
It was also a sign of a lack of confidence among both Democrats and Republicans in the Trump administration's approach to Russia. The bill puts into law the existing sanctions, extends the sanctions into other areas, principally cyber. And then it has some more problematic provisions on energy. The (initial) Senate bill really concerned the EU and Germany. Both went to work in Washington and were effective. The House of Representatives made a number of changes, explicitly in response to European lobbying. There was language added extolling unity with Europe.
So the concerns in Europe and Germany are exaggerated?
In some cases they may be. It is not unknown that in the heat of a political campaign rhetoric tends to be exaggerated. That may be the case in Germany [ahead of September's parliamentary election - the ed.]. Germany and the US do have a policy difference about the pipeline Nord Stream 2 [supplying more Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic sea - the ed.]. I have opposed it, but I would not use sanctions to go after it.
Do you think the US sanctions could kill this project?
That section of the bill on pipelines was not one of my favorites. We and Europe had an agreement that we would not go after the gas sector. But that section is discretionary, not mandatory. And it tells the administration to implement it in coordination with its allies. So I think the concerns are exaggerated.
I do not think this bill alone will kill it. If the deal falls apart, it will be because of either it's found inconsistent with European energy policy, or Europeans themselves change their mind about it.
A popular argument making the rounds in Europe, in Germany and in Russia these days is that the US is pursuing its "America first" economic agenda, promoting its liquid gas plans under the cover of politics…
No, no, no. That argument is just wrong. The US since the Clinton administration has supported the diversification of energy sources and been skeptical of Russia's near monopoly of gas supplies to Europe, saying this is a security problem. And increasingly Europe has come to agree. The fact is that US LNG exports are good for European security, because they help to weaken the Russian monopoly.
What are the most important points of this bill?
The most important message is one which Europe ought to like, which is, we are going to maintain sanctions on Russia because of its aggression against Ukraine. A second message is that we are going to put more pressure on Russia because of its election interference.
What is the message for the Russian elite and President Vladimir Putin?
Whatever you thought you would get out of the Trump administration, you better think twice. It would be in your best interest to settle the Ukraine conflict by working with Europe and the US along the lines of Minsk [the Minsk agreement is a road map brokered by Germany and France to achieve, among other things, a ceasefire in Ukraine's Donbas region and a withdrawal of heavy weapons - the ed.].
These are the toughest US sanctions on Russia for years. Was Trump's predecessor Barack Obama too soft on Russia?
The bill represents a lack of confidence in President Trump's thinking about Russia. I was in the Obama administration, I was involved in the preparation of the cyber sanctions in December 2016. I agree that our response was not strong enough. Basically, because we were out of time.
Do you think Trump will sign the bill?
I think he will sign it. If he vetoes it, he risks having his veto overwritten. If the bill is passed, I will advise the Trump administration to implement the elements which are clearly directed against Russia with vigor and to implement the more problematic elements that involve European companies very carefully.
Ambassador Daniel Fried is a former assistant secretary for European affairs in the US State Department and served as Coordinator for Sanctions Policy in the Obama administration. He retired in February and is now an expert at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.